One of my favorite classes at Southern Seminary was “The Ministry of Proclamation” (i.e. Preaching 101) with Dr. Hershael York, author of Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Approach to Engaging Exposition. Dr. York’s counsel has been of great benefit to me in preaching and teaching. I’m grateful for his emphasis on biblical exposition, application, and delivery. Today, I’m thankful that he has agreed to answer a few questions about preaching.
Trevin Wax: Your book divides sermon preparation into three parts: the text, the sermon, and the delivery. In your opinion, which part is the most neglected in preaching today?
Hershael York: I am confident that each part is neglected by different segments of evangelicals. Preachers tend to react against the abuses and errors of the climate in which they were nurtured.
As a result, preachers who grew up in churches in which the pastor was all flash and little substance tend to shy away from any emphasis on delivery, believing it to be man-centered, and focus on the text. On the other extreme, preachers who grew up in a lifeless orthodoxy may lean too far the other direction and substitute a great delivery and a few spiritual insights for rich biblical revelation. Many Millennials react against the revivalist sermon structure and rhetorical devices that seem trite and settle for a rambling narrative with little discernible structure at all.
So I would have to say that of text, sermon, and delivery, the most neglected today is the one that the preacher has seen overemphasized. But preachers need to master all three concepts. The preacher needs to discover biblical truth, organize it in a culturally relevant way, and deliver it in an engaging manner that reaches the mind of his listeners through their hearts.
Trevin Wax: How much time should a pastor spend on his sermon per week?
Hershael York: Every sermon I preach has taken me my whole life to preach it. Every sermon is the culmination of an invested life. I couldn’t possibly quantify how much time actually goes into a sermon, because I’m drawing from things I learned as a child, a student, a husband, a father, a seminarian, a pastor, a professor, and everything else I’ve done in life.
Sermon preparation is like making wine. The grapes may be newly crushed but they come from vines that are old. That’s why smart students and pastors invest their time in skills and strategies that will pay off many times over.
I don’t have to consult a lot of Greek commentaries because I took four years of undergraduate Greek and then did 30 hours of graduate Greek before I ever went to seminary. Diagramming epistolary passages doesn’t take very long because I’ve already diagrammed most epistles and work to stay intimately acquainted with the text. I invested in the Logos scholars edition so I can have those reference works at hand wherever I go. I don’t buy books that I’ll only use once, but rather invest in the kind of reference works that I will refer to repeatedly. All those things shorten the weekly time I will spend on an individual sermon because I’ve already spent it.
But having said that, I also believe that it takes a significant investment of time to think through a passage, especially to think how it applies to the people I pastor and then to figure out the best way to say it so it grabs them by the lapels and shakes them a bit.
Finding illustrations requires a great deal of time, too, because that never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder to be fresh, to find something new. How many different illustrations of faith can one find, after all? And I read and reject 100 possible illustrations to find that one window of light that illumines the subject at hand like I want it to.
So I can’t really give you a specific time allotment for my sermons as it varies, usually due to whether I’m preaching a NT text with which I have great familiarity or an OT text (like Isaiah) for which I feel much less adequate and out of my expertise. My goal is the same, however. By the time I stand in the pulpit to preach, I want to know that text so intimately and thoroughly that I am saturated with it. If I don’t have that, then I haven’t spent enough time with it.
Trevin Wax: Is it possible to spend too much time on a sermon?
Hershael York: One can spend too much time on sermon preparation in the sense that one neglects other appropriate areas of life and ministry. A sermon will never be perfect, but a text can be dealt with adequately if not exhaustively.
Trevin Wax: You advocate making the main points of the sermon applicational. What’s the difference between this style of preaching and other styles? And why is this important?
Hershael York: I heard an excellent sermon today by Mark Dever, “Children” from Mark 10:13-16. The three points of his sermon were all imperative statements that were the result of asking the question, “What should we do if we understand the truth in this text?” That’s what applicational points look like.
Simply preaching knowledge-based sermons that don’t advocate action is suggesting that biblical truth has no practical value. Every doctrine leads us to a behavior, even if that behavior is trust or rest.
Paul clearly reveals his hermenuetic of OT interpretation in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. He recounts the story of the exodus, pointing out that the majority of the Israelites died in the wilderness because of unbelief in spite of high spiritual privileges afforded them by the Lord. Then he admonishes us not to do what they did, and he enumerates those ethical deductions.
I frankly cannot understand the sentiment that I often hear from some homileticians who seem phobic that we should tell our people what to do or avoid based on an OT passage. They fear that we will detract from God’s grace; but of course it’s God’s grace that gave us the OT text and the ability to either emulate or avoid the behaviors described in it.
I do not want to preach a sermon that even the devil can agree with. James warned us of precisely that kind of faith. If we preach a sermon that only states truth but does not exhort to action, then all we have done is raise the faith of our listeners to the level of the demons–who even tremble at the truth, but do not act on it.
Trevin Wax: What are some common pitfalls in the delivery of a sermon that can distract from the truth of the sermon’s content?
Hershael York: One of my axioms is what I call the paradox of preaching: the better you are, the less they notice you. If the preacher is nervous, stammering, repetitive, jittery, wooden, frenetic, frozen, or any other distractive adjective one might imagine, the audience will hardly hear what he is saying, regardless of how true or helpful it may be.
The most common mistake I see among conservative and especially reformed preachers is the belief that if we just get the truth out there, the Holy Spirit will use it, in spite of our poor delivery.
The Millennials have a great challenge because they are far more accustomed to communicating via texts, emails, blogs, and the written word than they are orally, but preaching is oral, and that is a very different means of communicating truth than through words on a page. The biggest mistake I see is when preachers preach like writers, concentrating more on the specific words that they want to say–basically reading the sermon–than on communicating with a real audience.
Trevin Wax: Where do you find good illustrations for sermons?
Hershael York: I try to look where no one else is looking. I look at my own life and experiences. I read a lot, and I seldom use common illustration sources.
In recent years Malcolm Gladwell’s books and the two Freakonomics volumes have been worth their weight in gold to me. I listen to NPR’s This American Life. I find books like Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, about a Wycliff translator who became an atheist on the mission field and find a treasure of ways to apply that.
Of course the Bible itself is a great way to illustrate and teach biblical content to a congregation at the same time, although I obviously do not subscribe to the belief that we should avoid extra-biblical sources for illustrations. Good illustrations won’t make a bad sermon a good one, but they do make a good sermon a great one.